Leadership & Governance: Bringing more diversity to the top jobs

The voluntary sector is on the right track, but charities are still finding it hard to get more women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds into senior roles. Kate Youde reports

Sector diversity
Sector diversity

Much of the voluntary sector is built on a desire to bring about change. Yet a glance around the top tables at many charities suggests they are not necessarily leading the way towards greater diversity.

Fewer than 1 per cent of chief executives who responded to last year's Acevo Pay Survey 2011/12 were Asian and fewer than 1 per cent were black. Women filled 59 per cent of senior management positions in charities but accounted for only 46 per cent of chief executives - a one percentage point fall on 2010.

Despite some changes in recent years, chairs remain overwhelmingly male (65.6 per cent), pale (96.3 per cent are white) and stale (72.9 per cent are over the age of 55). So do charity leaders think the sector is making genuine progress in addressing diversity?

Cedric Frederick, chief executive of the social care provider Avante Partnership, says Acevo's figures "speak for themselves". He believes charities have a "bit of an image problem" and that not many people from ethnic minorities look to the sector for a career.

"I think a lot of it is cultural," he says. "Certainly there's a pressure on people from ethnic minorities to go into professions such as accountancy, law, architecture or medicine, and my sense is the charity sector has not been seen in the same light."

Senior people from ethnic minorities in other sectors might be interested in bringing their skills to the voluntary sector if they were made aware of it, according to Frederick. "I think the sector could do a better job of getting itself known more widely," he says.

The economic climate means there are fewer job opportunities in charities, and senior staff, who in the past might have moved on, are more likely to stay put. Javed Khan, chief executive of Victim Support, believes this lack of movement is making it difficult to address the issue of diversity. His charity has recruited two trustees under the age of 40 after recognising the need for younger board members, and has devised a four-year equality and inclusion strategy. This includes an objective to improve staff diversity by taking steps such as moving away from tried and tested routes for advertising jobs.

"We have got the actions in place; the problem now is that we don't have the vacancies," he says.

Khan worked in the public sector for 26 years and says the charity sector does not compare favourably with it in terms of diversity. He thinks this is partly because charities work with people from under-represented groups, which has led to "an assumed understanding of diversity" in the voluntary sector. But he says: "There is a lack of a targeted action, which we have seen in other sectors."

Voluntary organisations are performing better on equality than the private sector, however. According to the report Women Count: Charity Leaders 2012, which sets out the number of female chief executives and chairs in the largest 100 charities, 32 per cent of board members in these charities are women, compared with 9.4 per cent in FTSE 250 companies. Women account for 2.4 per cent of chairs and 4 per cent of chief executives in the FTSE 250, compared with 17 per cent of chairs and a quarter of chief executives in charities.

But the report illustrates that there is still a long way to go, given that women make up 68 per cent of the voluntary sector workforce. Parity is rare: only four of 162 charities that were studied have a 50:50 balance of men and women on their boards.

Elizabeth Balgobin, chair of Voice4Change England, the national membership organisation for the BME voluntary and community sector, says part of the challenge is getting more people interested in being trustees. This summer's Olympic Games in London proved that there is an appetite among the public for volunteering, she says, but tasks like reviewing accounts are "boring, even to those who do it on a regular basis" - so charities should make boards "attractive and fun". She suggests they concentrate on developing the volunteers they already have so that they go on to become trustees.

But diversity might get worse before it gets better, according to Balgobin. She predicts a decline in the proportion of women and people from ethnic minorities in senior roles in the near future because charities that in the past have not had female chief executives or appointed people from ethnic minority groups to these roles are less likely to take a risk.

"I think the downturn has actually meant that people are more likely to be recruiting people they know rather than take a risk on an unknown," says Balgobin. "But I think we might be seeing a trend in the other direction fairly soon."


- Read our interview with Dame Mary Marsh

- Sector experts give their views on the relationship between chairs and chief execs

- See what are the career benefits of a Clore Fellowship

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